World Flavors: Asia Minor
Asian concepts and cuisines are thoroughly integrated into American dining, but authenticity is sometimes sacrificed for mainstream appeal—especially in the fast-casual and casual segments. Certain industry innovators are set on fixing that problem—and their timing couldn’t be better. Operationally, it’s less of a hassle today to menu authentic Indian, Thai and Vietnamese dishes. Essential ingredients that were previously unavailable or hard to track down are easier to source from regular suppliers. And more adventurous American taste buds are ready and eager for spicier flavor profiles. See how these operators are making it happen.
Passage to India
Amar Singh is a man on a mission to take Indian food where Chipotle Mexican Grill and Noodles & Co. have gone before. His new fast-casual “fresh Indian grill” is based on the same philosophies of freshness, quality and authenticity that have made Chipotle and Noodles so successful and appealing. But Singh is offering up an Indian menu—something that doesn’t adapt well to mass production with flavors that Americans have been slow to embrace.
“Indian food is complex to prepare and you if cook dishes ahead, the sauces tend to lose flavor,” president and CEO Singh explains. To overcome these challenges in a quick service operation, Bombay Bowl makes all its sauces, chutneys and relishes in-house and keeps them at the ready, then preps meats, vegetables and other components separately. Per order, the staff mixes and matches a protein, vegetable, sauce and topping as the guest requests, creating a customized bowl, salad or roti wrap made with fresh-baked naan. The result might be a Grilled Chicken Bowl with Chickpea Curry, Korma (mildly spiced coconut sauce) and Cilantro Garlic Chutney for $6.99. The tagline “spiced food, not spicy food” encourages accessibility to customers who might be wary of too much heat.
Singh also offers “set” combinations such as Vindaloo Bowl ($7.50) and Tikka Bowl ($6.99) that were developed from recommendations by focus groups held prior to opening. “We tested these to make sure they would speed up the line,” he adds.
As far as sourcing goes, “all ingredients have to be available from purveyors in the United States,” says Singh. His broadliner, U.S. Foodservice, supplies the requisite long-grain basmati rice from India as well meats, vegetables, canned goods and other staples. Items like yogurt and organic tofu are purchased from Shamrock Foods in Phoenix, a distributor with a focus on dairy products. And Singh buys a majority of his spices from Rocky Mountain Spice Company, which does some custom blending for Bombay Bowl. “There are also many U.S.-based Indian vendors who will import products like mango pulp and tamarind directly from India for us,” he reports.
The first Bombay Bowl opened in February, 2009. Singh believes the time is right for fresh Indian cuisine in a fast-casual setting and plans to expand the concept.
Billed as “Spice Route Cuisine,” the menu at this polished-casual neighborhood restaurant features modern interpretations of heirloom recipes from the Indian subcontinent. “We are presenting Indian food from a regional and cultural standpoint, like Italian was 30 years ago,” says David Anderson, chef de cuisine. “We have to shake loose the idea of steam table curries and show off the freshness and diversity of spicing.”
Anderson purchases local products as much as possible to create menu signatures such as Spring Vegetable Sambar ($14) and Madras Lamb Curry made with Oregon lamb shoulder. He goes through large quantities of organic Nancy’s Yogurt, Draper Valley chicken and Carlton pork shoulder—all locally sourced. The produce for his seasonally changing chutneys—including rhubarb, pear, stone fruit and spicy tomato—mostly comes from nearby farms and is distributed through Charlie’s Produce. But he has to go further afield for the spices and souring agents that distinguish the cuisine.
Essential flavoring ingredients include ginger, garlic, cilantro and mint as well as the more esoteric tamarind, dried mango powder, black cardamom and asafetida (a pungent garlic-ginger seasoning). Vindalho sources these from Oregon Spice, which imports most of the seasonings from India. Anderson adds: “Lots more is available online these days, too, and we can also shop the Indian retail outlets.”
Asian melting pot
Although “fusion” is out of favor as a culinary term, many of today’s contemporary Asian restaurants are mixing styles and cuisines under the names “Pan Asian” or “New Asian.” At Sunda in Chicago, the New Asian menu reflects executive chef Rodelio Aglibot’s upbringing in the Philippines and Hawaii as well as his travels throughout Asia. He updates preparations with a lighter, more stylish touch, incorporating Japanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian influences. There are Asian “tapas” like Lemongrass Beef Lollipops with a chili glaze ($5) and Devil’s Basket (crispy soft shell crabs with dried chilies, shallots, scallions and toasted garlic; $15); Thai Fried Chicken ($18), inspired by Thailand’s street food vendors; and a creative array of sushi, noodles, grilled items and “main flavors” among the selections.
“About 80% of my ingredients are pretty common and don’t require specialty suppliers,” Aglibot reports. “Less familiar ingredients, such as chili pastes, shishito peppers, palm sugar and certain sauces, are sourced from an Asian purveyor.” Purchasing is very relationship-based, he continues to say. In order to build those relationships—especially when you’re a newbie—Aglibot taps into his chefs’ network to find purveyors who are willing to work with him, then brings them into the kitchen to sample the food—a crucial step.
“When vendors understand how their product works on the menu, they can make suggestions as to garnishes, complementary ingredients, etc. And if an item spikes in price, the vendor will know exactly which replacement ingredient to send along,” he says.
Phillips Seafood Restaurants
Myrtle Beach, S. C.
Even non-Asian concepts are incorporating more exotic Asian items into the lineup. At this branch of Phillips Seafood Restaurant, the World Cuisines Buffet features 25% to 30% Asian fare. It’s a win-win for Phillips, since many of the made-to-order dishes use the company’s own frozen Asian sauces.
“The idea came from Steve Phillips [president and CEO] to do something with the products in our Asian line,” explains corporate executive chef Todd Weisz. “This buffet gives us the opportunity to test flavors and allows patrons to see the products in action.”
The curry station, for example, features five sauces from Phillips curry line. Customers choose their protein and veggies and the chef at that cooking station makes an entrée like Red Curry Shrimp with Snow Peas or Green Curry with Mahi Mahi on the spot. Traditional garnishes are added to make it as close to the original as possible. “All the sauces are made in Asia and are authentic in flavor and heat level to those from the country of origin,” says Weisz. “Plus, Steve [Phillips] set up culinary teams in Thailand and India to develop dishes for the buffet.”
So far, the response has been excellent and the Phillips R&D team is working on more Asian sauces to incorporate into the menu items at its other seafood restaurants.